Email surveillance: the political fallout begins

Front pages condemn "snooper's charter", while both Tories and Lib Dems speak out against the bill.

"Snooper's charter will cost YOU £2bn," screams the Daily Mail's headline this morning. The Times goes with the slightly more sober "New law on snooping puts Tories in turmoil", while the Guardian's angle is "Lib Dems threaten rebellion over plans to extend email and phone call surveillance".

Yes, today was another morning of almost universally bad headlines for the coalition, this time over plans to expand the type of communications data stored by telephone and internet providers. Under the proposals, internet service providers would retain details of every phone call, email and website visit for at least a year.

While the government is adamant that this will not mean access to the content of messages, merely to data about them, there are question marks over where the line will be. Moreover, it is a significant ramping up of state power from a coalition led by two men who both promised to tackle excessive surveillance while in opposition.

According to the Guardian, senior Liberal Democrats are threatening to rebel, and are seeking clarification from Nick Clegg's office over whether the legislation would allow the intelligence services to access the content of communications without a warrant from the Home Secretary. "No expert I've ever spoken to can see how this could possibly be done without great expense and without allowing access to the actual message that was sent," said Julian Huppert, the Lib Dem MP for Cambridge.

Meanwhile, the Times (£) quotes several Conservatives taking issue with the plans. Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested that David Cameron was being hypocritical, and warned of the possible international ramifications: "The government ought to remember why it favoured liberty in opposition. The powers it creates may in future be used by less benevolent administrations." David Davis said it was "an unnecessary extension of the ability of the State to snoop on ordinary people", while Dominic Raab warned of the risk of fraud.

The Home Secretary Theresa May is out defending the proposal this morning, writing in the Sun that it will help to tackle organised crime and terrorism ("Whole paedophile rings, criminal conspiracies and terrorist plots can then be smashed.").

But as the raft of negative front pages and comment pieces shows, this is another media battle that the coalition is losing. Yesterday, I blogged on reports that Tory MPs are frustrated that government policies are not being communicated properly to voters. Today, as ministers fail to articulate an effective response to the Information Commissioner's comment (contained in a previously restricted briefing note) that "the case for the retention of this data still needs to be made", that worry seems justified.

Theresa May, the Home Secretary, has defended proposals over extending email surveillance. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.